Dirtying the water of life: Can Te Waikoropupū Springs' purity be protected?

by Katy Jones / 23 May, 2017
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 The clear waters of Te Waikoropupū Springs. Photo / Katy Jones

At the top of the South Island lies some of the clearest water in the world. It's a sacred site for Māori. But have efforts to protect Te Waikoropupū Springs come too late? 

Tim Hikuroa has tasted the forbidden fruit.  Granted it was still legal to swim in Golden Bay's Te Waikoropupū Springs (known as Pupū Springs) in 1998, when he and some 30 other teenagers went free-diving there, and he may not have fully appreciated the privilege at the time.  But now, aged 35, and with the practice since banned Tim feels honoured to have had the chance.

"It was surreal," he says, recounting the thrill of being suspended at approximately the height of a two storey house, with plants in sharp relief on the bed below.  "The water was clear as, and freezing," he says of the main pool, where he had to snorkel and duck dive as part of a sixth-form P.E. assessment.  While initially focused on passing the test, he describes then gaining a sudden insight into the life of a fish; racing trout as he was swept along underwater, in the current of the Springs River.

"We knew before we hopped in how lucky we were to be able to get this experience," reflects Tim, now the Deputy Principal of Tasman School.  

Lucky not least, because the water in Te Waikoropupū Springs is judged to be among the clearest on Earth. The National Institute for Water and Atmosphere rates it second only to the near-frozen Weddell Sea in Antarctica. Scientists believe this is because the water, originating from the Takaka catchment in the Kahurangi National Park, takes up to ten years to filter through an aquifer, before pumping into the springs at a rate of up to 14,000 litres a second.

The springs are among the clearest on Earth. Photo / Katy Jones

Lucky too, because they are the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand, and the largest coldwater springs in the Southern Hemisphere. It also has a unique biodiversity. Several threatened species of flora and fauna reside there, including the northern freshwater crayfish and a species of moss found nowhere else.

And most lucky, as far as Tim’s concerned, for having been able to enter a site of such spiritual, cultural and historical significance to Māori.  

As a descendant of the Taranki-based iwi, Ngati Ruanui, he recognises the importance of the springs' physical and spiritual link to tribal ancestors.

"While I'm stoked that we were allowed to swim in it back then, I'm glad that we're not allowed in it anymore.  We humans are great at wrecking this world we live in, so we need to protect our most precious assets.  I think this is what's special about the Māori culture.  We consider the earth as our most precious asset and we are only a tiny part of it."

Tim, with his wife Vairi, and their children, from left: Sadie, Maaha and Tui. Photo / Supplied
It's for this reason that the rallying cry is intensifying from iwi Ngati Tama ki Te Waipounamu, among other Golden Bay campaigners, who lament the impact of dairy farming on the springs.  Recent tests by the group, Friends of Golden Bay, has put levels of E coli at the boundary of the springs reserve, during rain events, at 37 times higher than the safe limit for swimming, and more than 20,000 times higher than the safe level for drinking. 

Tasman District Council says it's working with farmers on measures to take account of runoff during heavy rainfall.  But there’s concern too over council plans to increase water allocation from the Takaka catchment for irrigation, with fears more pollution or a drop in river levels will damage the unique aquifer organisms responsible for the springs' crystal clear water.

Tangata whenua have good reason to want to protect this water.  They classify it as Wai Ora; the Water of Life; the purest form of freshwater, which is believed to give and sustain life and counteract evil.  Maori legend dictates that the spiritual guardian, Huriawa, rests in the caves and underground streams that lead to the springs.  Iwi still use the site for ceremonial, blessing and healing purposes.  

In 2009, after consultation with the local iwi Ngati Tama, Ngati Rarua and Ngati Atiawa, the Department of Conservation upheld a ban on contact with the waters of Te Waikoropupū Springs, that had been introduced two years beforehand to protect it from contamination by the invasive alga, Didymo.

On a recent visit to the springs, my 6-year-old son was frustrated by this fact, and sulked for most of our brief walk around the beauty spot.  I admit I also found the water tantalising.  The surface of the main pool, billowing and swirling with the furious escape of water from several vents, blurred my view into its turquoise depths, making me want to jump in myself and explore it.  

Yet I was also struck with an uneasy sense, akin to Tim's sentiments, of intruding on this sacred site.  The Te Waikoropupū scenic reserve felt immediately like a mystical place, almost like a New Zealand of long ago. While I'm no expert on native New Zealand flora, the lush density of the forest reminded me of places it took me hours - even days - to walk to in the South Island when I was younger and fitter, with plants of starkly contrasting shapes and sizes exploding all around.

The entrance to the springs. Photo / Katy Jones

Maybe it’s just the die-hard tramper in me, but something doesn't feel quite right about accessing such gifts from Mother Earth so easily; rocking up to a car park from a well-maintained road, peering down at wet-looking undergrowth from the safety of sturdy board walks. It’s as if such beauty needs to be earned, not consumed.

Although intensely grateful to be able to visit, I'm glad we no longer violate the taonga of Te Waikoropupū Springs by invading the heart of it.

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